From their earliest forced arrival in colonial North America, enslaved Africans had rebelled. Crispus Attucks, a 47-year-old sailor and fugitive enslaved man, became the first casualty in the Boston Massacre, and his act of defiance marked the beginning of the march towards revolution. By April 1775, Massachusetts militiamen clashed with British troops, launching the Revolutionary War.
The conflict touched everyone—white, Black, enslaved, or free. With much of colonial society built on human bondage, some felt that there was a paradox at the heart of the American Revolution. Abigail Adams, a white Patriot, wrote: “It allways appeard a most iniquitious Scheme to me—fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” For Africans, the Revolution was a battle for freedom from slavery.
Africans, at 20% of the colonial population, could tip the scales of war and therefore could not be ignored. The British and Colonial armies, initially reluctant, sought the advantage of recruiting able-bodied enslaved African men to support their cause. Africans aligned with whichever side offered the better promise of freedom. Black Patriot Boyrereau Brinch remembered: “Thus was I, a slave for five years, fighting for liberty.”
Though our bodies differ in color from yours; yet our souls are similar in a desire for freedom.
Vox Africanorum, Maryland Gazette, 1783
In 1770 Crispus Attucks, a fugitive enslaved man, was killed as he led an interracial group of fellow sailors in the Boston Massacre. The first casualty of the American Revolution, Attucks became a symbol of American resistance. He was born in Massachusetts in 1723 to enslaved parents, an African father and a mother of Nantucket Indian descent. At a trial following the massacre, prosecutor John Adams said Attucks had “undertaken to be the hero of the night.”
In 1891, John Boyle O’Reilly immortalized Crispus Attucks in a poem that included the powerful line, “first to defy, first to die.”
In 1775 George Washington penned a letter to Col. Henry Lee remarking that the success of the war depended upon which side most quickly armed Africans. The Patriot leaders were initially reluctant to enlist Africans in the armed forces for fear of a rebellion and the loss of their enslaved property. But the British offered enslaved people freedom after service, and by 1776 George Washington also extended the promise of freedom to Africans who enlisted in his army.
Before the Revolution, many Africans were already experienced seamen on merchant vessels. Due to a shortage in manpower, both the Continental and Royal navies signed Africans into service early in the conflict. During the war, they served in a variety of capacities—piloting vessels, building ships, and managing ammunition on board.
The Bucks of America was an all-Black military company that likely operated in Boston. Little is known about the unit, but it is believed that they guarded the property of Boston merchants and were also known as The Protectors. Toward the end of the American Revolution, the unit was presented with a regimental silk flag in honor of their dedicated service.
On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly, desperate for military recruits, voted to allow the enlistment of "every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave." The legislature also declared that "every slave so enlisting shall . . . be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free." As all-Black companies joined the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, it came to be called the Black Regiment, though Blacks, whites, and Native Americans served side-by-side.